The Jewish Prime Minister?
Benjamin Disraeli has been called the first (and only) Jewish Prime Minister of England. The truth of this claim is…complicated. According to Jewish law, he was Jewish. His political detractors never hesitated to bring up his Jewish background. But at the age of 13–at the behest of his father Isaac, who had had a falling out with the Bevis Marks synagogue (the main Sephardi synagogue in London)–Benjamin Disraeli was baptized. He remained a member of the Anglican church for the rest of his life.
From a political perspective, Benjamin Disraeli was a fascinating figure. He was first elected to Parliament, as a Tory (conservative), in 1837, the year Victoria ascended the throne. In time, he became one of the Queen’s intimates. She granted him the title of Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876, and, upon his death in 1881, sent a wreath “from his grateful and affectionate Sovereign and friend, Victoria R.I.” He first assumed the office of Prime Minister in February 1868, when his predecessor, Lord Derby died in office. He left office in December of that same year, returned to office in 1874, and remained Prime Minister until 1880. Disraeli’s second term was preceded and succeeded by William Gladstone, Disraeli’s life-long political rival.
A well-known novelist in addition to being a politician, Disraeli wrote 17 novels (and had started his 18th when he died). His works have been praised for their use of language, but, at the same time, criticized for their lack of subtlety. Political messages and characterizations of Disraeli’s associates were often only thinly veiled. At least one of his novels, Alroy, had a blatantly pro-Jewish and pre-Zionistic tone.
Disraeli’s most famous pro-Jewish statement, however, was in response to a disparaging remark about his ancestry: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”
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